Mystery = Heart of Darkness

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Remember the principle we were examining a few months ago?

The female carries the mystery.

Let’s explore this in the movie Apocalypse Now.

The central image/passage of the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film is a journey upriver. Hard to think of a more “female” construct, particularly when the voyage is cast from the story’s inception as an odyssey into the dangerous and the unknown.

When we recall, in addition, that Apocalypse Now is derived from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, we are more certain than ever that the primal image and narrative architecture is female.

Martin Sheen as Capt. Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now

Our male lead is army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), who is tasked by his superiors to venture upriver, locate a certain Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and “terminate his command,” i.e. kill him. Why? Because although Kurtz has been astonishingly successful in carrying out his mission in military terms, he has apparently “gone native.”

 Wildly native. 

Kurtz has gotten out of hand, say his downriver superiors. He is operating beyond all command and control. His methods, the army brass declare, are “unsound.”          

“Terminate,” the officers instruct Willard, “with extreme prejudice.”

But for our young captain, as he commences his journey upriver and begins to study Kurtz’s service records and learn his history—top of his class at West Point, multiple awards for valor, rapid promotion after rapid promotion—the focus of the enterprise alters for him. 

It becomes more about fathoming the Mystery.

Who is Kurtz?

Is he a madman or a genius?

What has he discovered, of life or of himself, deep in the jungle?

We, watching the movie, are of course asking the same questions.

What exactly is the mystery in the deepest sense—the “female” that the film is seeking to explore and to understand?

The mystery is Vietnam.

Specifically, the mystery is Vietnam as a theater of war in which we Americans—a self-described unbeatable military, cultural, and economic power—find ourselves up against a foe whom our methods can’t seem to defeat.

The mystery is the enemy.

Who are these little guys in black pajamas? What do they know that we don’t? And why are they kicking our ass?

The mystery is the jungle.

The mystery is the hidden, the occult, the unknown. It is that which eludes our helicopters and spy planes and satellites, that which cannot be bombed or Agent Oranged into submission.

The mystery is our own inner darkness.

Why are we in Vietnam in the first place? What is our objective? What are we trying to accomplish? For whom? And why?

When you and I as writers seek to apply a principle like “the female carries the mystery” in studying and evaluating a specific work like Apocalypse Now, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?

First, we’re testing the principle to see if it holds water. Does it apply? Is it a key or road map to the movie’s inner meaning? Can it help us gain insight? Most importantly, can we then use this principle in seeking to understand our own stories, particularly whatever tale we happen to be working on now?

Can we ask ourselves, of our current story, “Is there a ‘female?’ Who is it? What is it? Is it ‘carrying a mystery?’ Is there a ‘male’ character seeking to unravel or reveal this mystery? What, in our story, is the mystery?”

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